Traditional batteries 
are getting a 
powerful makeover

Batteries run a world of devices, from wristwatches to electric cars. But they store relatively little energy, often are made with rare or toxic metals, and most can’t be recharged more than a few times.

Alcoa and battery maker Phinergy have developed a feather-light battery that uses aluminum and air as the electrical poles with a water electrolyte. The partners debuted the cell as an add-on to an electric car that, with the new battery, can go up to four times farther between charges. When the electrolyte is depleted, you pop out the battery’s spent canister and plug in a new one.

Less exotic is the carbon-lithium battery that scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have invented. Unlike conventional lithium batteries, this one doesn’t need cobalt, a rare and toxic metal. The battery’s poles are a nano-structured form of carbon, with lithium as the active ingredient. The step promises batteries that are cheaper and easier to manufacture and recycle, and able to store far more energy than its ancestors.

Power Japan, another battery maker, is touting its own version of the carbon-lithium battery that, it says, charges 20 times faster than conventional lithium-ion cells. That would allow a Nissan Leaf to be fully recharged in 12 minutes instead of the usual four hours.

The battery, using carbon made from cotton, can be recharged up to 3,000 times, the company claims, compared to the average of 1,000 for conventional lithium-ion cells. The new device also won’t heat up during use, which wears the battery out and can pose safety hazards. And it can be made using battery factories’ existing production lines.

Power Japan will start making the battery this year for some specialized applications, such as medical devices, and will license other makers to produce vehicle batteries.

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